Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Some fetishes play with double-edged swords


Fetish fanatics of all stripes will attend Sunday's Folsom Street Fair. Photo: Rick Gerharter
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In his essay, "It's a White Man's World," writer Dwight McBride samples a collection of online gay sex ads he has encountered:

"I got mad dick fo ya," a toned black man proclaims in his ad seeking white men.

"Sorry bois – not interested in black men," says a white top advertising for bottoms.

"Caucasian only -- be in shape, no fems pls," a white man's ad casually states.

McBride, a gay black man, goes on to describe a few of his personal interactions out in the world. At a party in West Hollywood, he once was cruised heavily by a young white guy, and the two began a flirtatious ritual that seemed destined to end in hot steamy sex. But "two minutes into our conversation," McBride writes, "he threw me for a loop with his declaration that he and his friends were 'out looking for black guys tonight.'"

The white man smiled as he said it and it was clear he meant it as a compliment, but the damage was done.

"To his mind, he and his friends were out to give the gift of whiteness to a few fortunate black gay male souls," writes McBride. "I hated him in that moment. I hated the set of assumptions that made it possible for him to imagine that this statement was something he could say to me in this way. I hated not being able to injure him in the same way."

McBride's essay was an uncomfortable read for the roughly dozen members of "Sex Pol" – the late Eric Rofes's sexual politics discussion group – who had gathered in July for their monthly meeting, this time to tackle the subject of race-based desire and exclusion.

It wasn't that those in attendance at the meeting didn't try to be anti-racist in their everyday lives; many, in fact, understood tokenism and the exotification of minority groups to be problematic.

But when it came to personal erotic tastes, the self-identified sexually liberated members of Sex Pol were hesitant to be critical. In a very real sense, some maintained, all sexual desire involved narrative and power play. Even the fact that a particular preference may be considered "wrong" would of course also lend itself to being hot.

But many people are not aware of such complex roots of desire, argued others. The phrase, "sorry, just a preference," for instance, dominates the world of online personals when it comes to racial and body type exclusions, an unexamined statement that potentially damages--and allows groups in power to define--the sexuality of minorities.

Trevor Hoppe, the group member assigned to present at Sex Pol that month, said he chose the topic because he had observed his own and his community's patterns while operating in the sexual marketplace, and wanted to engage in his sexual transactions in a responsible manner as a white gay man.

Having grown up in North Carolina where he "experienced being gay mostly filtered through the Internet," Hoppe later told the Bay Area Reporter, he has watched online dating transition from an outlet to connect with the world to a space to post "very specific wants -- which I think can be a good thing, but my concern is that it has the potential to pigeonhole people."

"A lot of the time the [desires] are expressed in terms of race, with people making assumptions about what other people's sexuality should look like," said Hoppe. "What I think happens is that white people get to create whatever kind of sexuality they want to create. There's no stereotype that goes with what it takes to be a white gay man; nothing that is specific to being white. But there's an Asian stereotype to be a bottom and to please 'the white man,' and there's a whole culture that goes with that. And there's a black man stereotype, with the predominant understanding of what it means to be black defined as a hyper-sexual, ubermasculine being."

Meanwhile those with certain preferences, Hoppe noted, often frame their desires in terms of the people they don't want.

"There's a possibility that every time a person of color goes online he could see something that says 'no Asians,'" said Hoppe. "White people cannot ever know how that feels."

Along the same lines, many people believe that a sexual desire toward often-marginalized characteristics--such as race, disability, or transsexual history--isn't a compliment, but rather, comes from the need to "other" certain bodies by distinguishing them from the norm. The fact that the marketplace even has terminology for so-called "chubby chasers" and "rice queens" might say more about the discomfort people have with those desires than about the preferences themselves.

Of course, not all sexual preferences are fetishes. Unlike many desires, an offensive fetish is more likely to stem from the same fear that drives sexual rejection, noted writer and artist Midori, who runs the Web site and is the author of several books, including Wild Side Sex: The Book of Kink.

In her regular column at, Midori recently noted that many social movements, as they gain visibility, simultaneously arouse fear and sexual desire.

"Changes in the social fabric, the implications of non-permanence, make people nervous, uncomfortable, and possibly fearful. People find various outlets to deal with and vent this discomfort, channeling the nervous energy," she wrote. "Some choose to hate the people who represent the forces of change. Others become hypersensitive supporters of the agitating minority, sometimes with a genuine wish for positive social change, at other times as a way to assuage internal prejudice or guilt. Some subconsciously channel this energy into sexual curiosity, reducing the object of anxiety into a simultaneously fearsome yet controllable fetish icon."

As an Asian American who frequently encounters what is sometimes called "yellow fever," she draws the line at entertaining desires that dehumanize her and treat stereotypes as truth rather than something to play with and challenge.

"It is offensive when you deny me my complexity. But it is naughty if you celebrate my complexity along with me, do role-play," she said. She may at various times choose to exercise her inner geisha or Manchurian prison guard, she said, but it is a conscious act.

"A fetishist who is not self-aware is really obnoxious," she said. "Do I play up the stereotypes the greater world puts on me? Yes, but only with a person who understands that it's a big friggin' joke."

Shut up and put out?

Yet assuming there is always a victim in potentially triggering scenarios can also be damaging, say some LGBT community members.

Often at stake with over-examination and politicization is the raw sexual energy that many people enjoy harnessing within a relatively quick turnaround time, noted local leatherman Rod Wood, Northern California Mr. Drummer 2000.

It's a given in the leather community that just about "everything means something different to everyone," said Wood, with leather itself symbolizing everything from simple attire to hyper-masculinity to fulltime relationship roles.

Though he acknowledges that much of the leather sex scene involves an exchange of power, he also said, "I kind of hate to use that term" given that it feels too much like processing, and not how he sees male sexuality play out.

"I have never found that to be a strong basis for relationships between men who negotiate who is doing what. In my experience a man can walk into a room and spot the one he's probably compatible with, and have a pretty good idea of what that person wants to do with them," he said, adding that "negotiating the finer points" and talking about roles has a strong place in the community, but rarely is discussed during the cruising stage itself.

Wood said he tends to allow his fellow community members to define their own boundaries without his passing judgment, even when it turns him off. He has been present at demonstrations for piercings, which is not something he would want to participate in, and he also has concerns about potential blood exposure and HIV risk. But it was "two adults participating in an activity that was consensual," he said.

He generally does not think it is any of his business what one's HIV status is "unless a friend was going to go home with someone and I would want them to know to play safe," and similarly, he has known people who engage in strangulation and choke play, and he believes they have a responsibility to learn CPR so that they can engage in the activity more safely. But Wood sees little harm in consensual race play or other fetishes. One of his black friends, he said, has been criticized for his "slave" sexuality, but that friend has made this choice himself, "which can be empowering, having the freedom to be what he wants to be."

Midori tends to agree.

"For me, I tend to believe, it's all good unless proven otherwise," she said. "When I am uncomfortable with someone's desires, I at least try my best to check myself and say, 'Why do they enjoy that and why am I uncomfortable with that they are doing?'"

But she added that many fetishes can be even hotter when care is taken to ensure they cause no harm. Such steps require self-examination, she said, adding that she celebrates fetishes as long as those who have them are not trapped in a compulsion around them and do attempt "to learn what aspect [of the object of desire] gives them a charge."

"There are many self-aware people that are actually playing with the taboo fantasy. Consciously playing with things like race may actually be a way of engaging in their own rituals of coming to terms with their humanity. And if you acknowledge the beast inside of you, it is significantly less likely that you will be the person who blows up on occasion with some expression of racism or sexism," she said. "I don't think [acknowledging those things] reduces the edge of how sexy that play is. It just reduces the power the taboo holds over you. The game is still fun, but the guilt doesn't control you."

Hoppe maintains that responsible sex includes social responsibility as part of a healthy, sexy gay community.

"This doesn't have to mean over-processing every single event, but it does mean being aware that our actions can have unintended consequences. The problem with racism is that it's not one person's problem to solve – it's our problem as a community to solve," he said. "Is it any surprise when so much of our gay media – porn, magazines, TV shows, etc. – perpetuate a standard of beauty that is white, muscled, and hairless?"

"I think if we go through life without ever challenging how images like these might have limited what we see as sexy," he said, "then we have really missed out on an opportunity to more fully explore our sexuality."

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